Why Is Memphis An Aerotropolis? "Because Jack Said"

Memphis, TN – At the Airport Cities World Conference, which took place in Memphis last week, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton was introduced as, "The distinguished Aerotropolis Mayor of America."

"Aerotropolis" is not in the dictionary, but it's basically a mashing of the word airport with the word metropolis. Its purest definition is, "A city built around an airport," said professor John Kasarda, who prefers to go by Jack.

But Memphis wasn't built around an airport. The city was founded before planes were even invented. The airport cities conference was held at the Peabody Hotel downtown, that's about a 20-minute drive from the airport.

There is, however, another, looser definition of "aerotropolis." Kevin Baker, the Executive Director of the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority, in North Carolina, said Piedmont is an emerging aerotropolis, "Because Jack said."

Kasarda thought up, defined, and wrote the book on Aerotropolis (quite literally--his book is called Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next.) So, a lot of what makes an aerotropolis an aertoropolis boils down to, "Because Jack said." Baker's second reason why the triad is an emerging aerotropolis was because a magazine had quoted Jack saying it was.

And Baker's third and final reason, presented to the conference on a slide, was, "Because FedEx said."

FedEx is also a big component of why Memphis is being called "America's Aeroropolis." For a long time Memphis, thanks to FedEx, was the busiest cargo airport in the world. Hong Kong surpassed Memphis in the most recent count. Now we're number two.

Kasarda says airplanes and airports do the lion-share of the work getting the things we order online to us quickly. He calls them the "physical" Internet. And he offers these, rather whimsical examples: blueberries, roses, medicine, I-phones.

"This is all moving around in this physical Internet, because the Web won't move a box, someone has to pick it, pack it, ship it," Kasarda said.

"My son uses Facebook for dating," Kasarda told the conference. "He lives just outside of San Francisco. He has a date from Chicago, from Los Angeles, I mean they get on planes."

Basically, anything perishable, or with a high value per-pound, and your son's dates, Kasarda says, are best shipped on planes.

In the future, Kasarda says, businesses will only want to locate near the airports that move their products and their people, and the "downtown" centers of cities will shift to surround the airports driving their economic development--and cities will turn into aerotropoli that way. To an extent, Kasarda says, this is happening already--Memphis International Airport, like many airports across the country, is no longer in the middle of nowhere, but surrounded by hotels and restaurants that have grown up buoyed by business from the airport.

Not everyone, however, sees that development as evidence of an aerotropolis taking off.

"That kind of sprawl," said author Hardy Green, "Can be seen in a lot of places, and virtually the entire state of Virginia is urban sprawl as far as I can tell."

Green reviewed Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next. Kasarda's crystal ball sees the Jetsons relying heavily on jets, Green isn't so sure.

"In terms of the larger economy, there is less and less dependence on travel all the time. So, again, I think the authors are talking about air cargo and not executive travel and I'm not sure how significant that is," Green said.